Let’s talk about dolphins for a second. Centuries of sea lore, going back to Greek mythology, tell us that they don’t just like humans but that they’re looking out for us, too–rising out of nowhere into the aftermaths of shipwrecks or plane crashes, pushing people to safety and warning sailors of foul weather. Unfortunately, that’s mostly a fable. The truth is that dolphins simply love to play, and one of their favorite forms of play is pushing things. Who knows how many times dolphins passed by people in need or pushed people the wrong way?
Call it “Flipper syndrome”–the tendency to observe certain behaviors or characteristics accurately, only to get their causes all wrong or attribute deeper meaning or intention where there isn’t any. There’s a Flipper syndrome affecting the business world, too, especially when it comes to another oft-mythologized creature, the successful startup founder. Not only are the myths we weave about founders misleading, they can also lead to failed ventures, lost investments, and future entrepreneurs tilting at windmills rather than developing the skills they’ll actually need to succeed.
Over the past decade I’ve had the chance to work with hundreds of founders, including interviewing more than 300 of them while researching two books on entrepreneurship and creativity. Here are three of the most stubbornly persistent myths that, based on all those conversations, are long overdue to sink into the deep.
Myth #1: Founders Are Bold Risk-Takers
Yes, founders do take risks–by definition, that’s what entrepreneurship requires. But few successful founders take unnecessary risks. Over time, the realities of growing a venture quickly sift out the dice-rollers from the careful and calculated risk-takers–even though by looking at the startup landscape as a whole, you will usually see a lot of risk-taking overall. It’s just that the riskiest players are more likely to fail.
Rob McGovern, founder of job finder site CareerBuilder, put it to me this way: “We make a big deal about saying ‘these people are risk-takers’. It’s more basic than that. It’s not about being defiant. It’s about the ability to calculate and mitigate.” And what McGovern and countless other successful founders have learned is that that ability takes unceasing practice. Moreover, the most successful entrepreneurs generally don’t even see themselves as risk-takers. Like McGovern, they see themselves as strategists–constantly crunching the mental numbers on the most likely (and therefore least risky) path to success.
The real risk, former dean of the Kellogg School of Management Dipak Jain told me, “is in the mind of the people [that the founder] is trying to convince.”
Myth #2: Founders Are Lone Rangers
It’s much simpler to believe that one person conceives, creates, and sustains success, from start to finish. The reality, however, is much more complicated–and collaborative. There’s no doubt that successful founders know how to think independently and can act apart from the status quo. But being willing to act alone at the start isn’t the same as continuing to stand alone over time; nor does is it count for quite as much in the long run.
Grameen Bank founder and micro-lending pioneer Muhammad Yunus pointedly reminded me that “community helps to encourage, enable, and value what the entrepreneur starts. If nobody notices,” Yunus said, or joins the founder to make their vision a reality, then “there is no reward for the entrepreneur, others, or the world.” Plenty of people rightly observe founders making bold, solo strides in the early days, and assume that that’s an essential quality for their success down the line.
But a company’s founding circumstances only become a focal point in subsequent narratives about it after the business has become a runaway success. The origin story doesn’t necessarily tell the whole tale about what made a venture thrive and grow. As Yunus points out, the legends tend to unfairly single out the “one” whose vision could never have succeeded in practice without the “many.”
Myth #3: Founders Have Powerful Personalities
If you look across the landscape of entrepreneurship, you’ll find a few recurring traits. Some, like comfort with change and standing outside the norm, truly do make a difference pretty consistently. But the prevalence of characteristics like these doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re predictors of who’ll succeed and who won’t.
In fact, while social scientists have looked for correlations between entrepreneurs and personality traits, most aren’t substantial enough to generalize from, and my experiences interviewing hundreds of founders bear that out. Nonetheless, we still tend to cling (consciously or not) to certain stereotypes about the personalities of successful founders: loud, bold, brash, silver-tongued.
Yet these don’t describe founders like Larry Page (Google), Wendy Kopp (Teach for America), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Christine Tsai (500 Startups), or countless other successful founders known to be quiet and introverted. Worse still, many of the most common beliefs about founders’ temperaments reinforce biases–many of them gender-based–that can make it harder for more diverse entrepreneurs to get taken seriously, acquire funding, or assemble the teams they need to succeed.
If anything, the alpha types who are highly visible in the business world may say more about the shameful lack of diversity in the upper echelons than anything about what it takes to succeed there. When you look at who’s truly effective over the long haul, it’s the team-builders who get the job done more reliably than those who are brash and larger than life. That takes appealing to the brain, gut, and heart of various audiences–customers, investors, team members, and so on–so one-trick-ponies of personality just may not have the breadth of people skills they need to succeed.
In truth, these three myths efface the nuances that characterize entrepreneurship itself, flattening out the variety of experiences, skills, and obstacles that any successful founder will confront–and overcome. Every case, every time, every person is different. When successful founders take risks, those risks are perpetually calculated, revisited, and weighed against alternatives. Likewise, they’re keenly aware that leadership, rather than being theirs alone, is a skill they need to cultivate across their entire leadership team, often taking different forms and different junctures.
And finally, while a strong personality can can sometimes play an important supporting role in success, it can’t captain your ship or save you when the venture you founded starts taking on water. In such times, false expectations of what it takes to succeed are as likely to save you as dolphins rising up from the deep blue sea.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly identified Kellogg School of Management as Kellogg School of Business.
Larry Robertson is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and an innovation advisor who works, writes, and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership, and entrepreneurship. He is the author of two award-winning books, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, and A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.